Section 4 [Because Men Went Hungry, by Rex Ingamells]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige (1951) by Rex Ingamells.]

§ 4. Australian sycophantism

For over a century after original settlement, Australian communities markedly bore the aspect of colonialism. The vastness of the continent rendered urbanization such an infinitesimal thing. The pursuit of primary industries in the great Outback, which seemed illimitable, sustained the pioneer atmosphere. But, also, the savour of graduation from British Rubbish-tip to self-governing Colonies was intensely satisfying to Australian communities, which, turning their backs, as well as might be, upon a disreputable infancy, developed the knack of ignoring their evolution by nostalgically short-circuiting their actual historic relationship with “the Mother Country.” This last psychological condition, combined with the patent continuance of pioneer enterprise, guaranteed slowness in the growth of any sure Australian character. Instinctively, Australians held off too thorough an investigation into their national tradition, and avoided too immediate a sense of national character. Popularly conceived, Australian character inhered in love of outdoor life and sport, health and toughness absorbed from a sunny climate, and imperial loyalty proper to British kinship and immediacy. Such a definition acquired an egotistic idealism in the eyes of Australians; but there was no depth to it. In British eyes, while admirable and touching in one sense, it betokened colonial dependence and inferiority, the grounds of which the British were satisfied, and unconcerned, to think they knew.

The British assumed that Australians had a proper sense of their history, and that, beyond this, the unsophistication of colonial life rendered them socially and culturally inferior. Actually, the Australians have sustained but an inadequate and improper sense of their history; and any lack of Australian national dignity has been due not to remoteness from the pulse of English life, but to a false obeisance to it, and to the failure of Australians to comprehend and refine their own lives in Australian terms.

Since the early days, Australians have consistently subscribed, both through warped conviction and sycophantic deference, much to English misconception and prejudice. English delusion has been fed, over and over again, by Australian ignorance and sycophantism. One of Australia’s most notable products has been sycophantism. Sycophants have surrounded and gained access to Government Houses, those institutions that ostensibly stand in relation to the Australian community as the royal court does to the British. One thing is certain, namely, that the royal court in Britain would not maintain such close alliance with mortal pretension and snobbery as the vice-regal courts of Australia notoriously have done. Refinements in society are essential, but they should be of the right sort. It is a social evil that there should be a hiatus between the spirit of the Australian people and the spirit of those Australians who are most elevated socially.

Among Australia’s most notable exports have been the sycophants, individuals whose delicacy has been so seedy that they have imagined the British would admire their taste, and appraise them as elite individuals, on the grounds of disparagement of their native land. The British, who admire the guts of less sophisticated Australian bush lads in war, may be pardoned for believing that Australian culture is sycophantic on the one hand and crude on the other. Syncophantism cannot be admired, and cultural rawness, while its reality may be appreciated, cannot qualify for the highest marks.

In the rawness of the Australian community and the outlandishness of the Australian natural environment, Australian snobs, with twittering nostalgic yearnings for English society and alien panoramas, still seek their compensation of slander for the regrettable accident of their Australian birth. Visitors to England, they bemoan Australia as a place aesthetically barren, culturally a desert.

Oversea misjudgments of Australia may today be attributed largely to the continued stimulant of sycophantism, just as occasional evidences of Anti-Britishism in Australia may be regarded as largely resentful reactions to the same cause. Although the Australian Short-circuit of Tradition, originating with such impelling urgency from the Exclusive-Emancipist struggle, is now sponsored actively only by social climbers of the Australian community, it still imposes inhibitions upon the national life, and is a serious handicap to prestige.

Australians are not deficient in a sense of British tradition, which, both historically and sympathetically, they share. Australians are deficient in a sense of Australian tradition, and, while they remain so, must be particularly vulnerable to criticism from other peoples whose social characters are surer in self-knowledge.

Rex Ingamells, Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige, Jindyworobak, Melbourne, 1951, pages 23-26

Editor’s notes:
inhered = to be inherent; to be an intrinsic part or essential element of something

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